Fotos: zVg; kues1/

Networks: the key to successful innovation

The way we eat is going to change. Health, cost, sustainability: the direction we take will primarily be shaped by our ability to adapt.

‘Grandma’s recipe’ is a hall­mark of quality and reflects the deep-seated links between food and our own histo­ries. Food is perso­nal. A neces­sity and a plea­sure alike. It’s a habit. Food is a reli­gion. If a change is to be successful, it needs to affect the entire value chain from start to finish – which includes consumers.

That doesn’t happen over­night. Nowa­days, sushi is a stan­dard option. Back in the 1960s, howe­ver, it was hard for people in Switz­er­land to imagine enjoy­ing raw fish. ‘We need to be conscious of these time­frames,’ says Lucas Grob, CEO of Swiss Food Rese­arch.

This obser­va­tion doesn’t just relate to cultu­ral diffe­ren­ces. Inno­va­tions, too, aren’t auto­ma­ti­cally a resound­ing success. ‘The tech­no­logy used to make lots of meat substi­tu­tes has been around since the 1960s,’ he says. ‘And now, suddenly, it’s having its heyday.’ He can’t say whether, ulti­m­ately, this was sparked by consu­mers wanting the product or super­mar­kets selling it in the right way. Trans­for­ma­ti­ons are complex, and they need to come at the right moment. If they do, an insect burger, say, might just be able to fend off compe­ti­tion from grandma’s meat­loaf. We know that change doesn’t happen solely based on the know­ledge of what’s good or what’s green. ‘We know a great deal, but our actions don’t align with this,’ says Lucas Grob. And yet, all these inter­con­nec­tions and scope for leverage are what fasci­nate him about his work: ‘Inno­va­tion is a neutral area, a place where you can try out lots of diffe­rent ways to over­come chal­lenges and break new ground.’ In fact, it’s indis­pensable: he is abso­lut­ely certain that we can’t conti­nue as we have been doing. The way we eat is dama­ging our planet. It’s unhe­althy. And we throw too much food away. Fort­u­na­tely, though, change is alre­ady underway.

‘Our western diet is really rather far from ideal.’

Nadina Müller, ZHAW

Small – yet tricky – steps

Even trans­for­ma­ti­ons that may sound easy are fraught with chal­lenges. Sugar is a good exam­ple of this. Persis­tent efforts to cut down the amount of sugar in food are a complex issue: consu­mers want the same sensory expe­ri­ence – just with less sugar.

Simply leaving it out isn’t an option, as Nadina Müller explains. She heads up the rese­arch group for Food Tech­no­logy at Zurich Univer­sity of Applied Scien­ces (ZHAW), where she also lectures on food process engi­nee­ring and inno­va­tion in food.

She heads up the rese­arch group for Food Tech­no­logy at Zurich Univer­sity of Applied Scien­ces (ZHAW), where she also lectures on food process engi­nee­ring and inno­va­tion in food. She looks for ways to make manu­fac­tu­ring proces­ses more sustainable and assess the envi­ron­men­tal impact that results from them. She explains the chall­enge when it comes to redu­cing food’s sugar content: ‘Just think about break­fast cere­als, which are 30 per cent sugar. If we want to trim this down to 20 or even 15 per cent, we need a filler that doesn’t change the product’s tech­ni­cal, func­tional and sensory proper­ties – and that doesn’t cost any more, either.’ A balan­ced diet is important, howe­ver, which is why this discus­sion shouldn’t really revolve around one single ingre­di­ent. Along­side macro­nu­tri­ents, our diges­tive systems need many other things: fibre or secon­dary phyto­nu­tri­ents such as colou­rings, which func­tion as anti­oxi­dants. Food needs to be good quality. ‘Our western diet is really rather far from ideal. We often only consume a small propor­tion of the raw product and frequently ignore the high-fibre parts of the plant, in parti­cu­lar,’ says Nadina Müller. ‘The link between fibre intake and health, in terms of various non-commu­ni­ca­ble dise­a­ses, has been explo­red for years. The data suggests that plant-based and high-fibre diets can help reduce the risk of a plethora of non-commu­ni­ca­ble dise­a­ses.’ As a result, it is important to find tech­no­lo­gi­cal methods to process high-fibre raw mate­ri­als into flavourful end products that the gene­ral popu­la­tion enjoys eating.

Insects and mushrooms

Lucas Grob also explo­res problems and obsta­cles, with the aim of deve­lo­ping holi­stic inno­va­tions for the food system. The Swiss Food Rese­arch asso­cia­tion func­tions as an inno­va­tion network. Its 210 or so members come from the value chain – from the field to the brain – and span start-ups, SMEs and rese­arch groups through to NGOs. Inno­va­tion groups look for solu­ti­ons that can shape trans­for­ma­tive ideas and safe­guard their success. The network prima­rily stri­ves to promote inno­va­tions at an early stage, targe­ting areas not yet on estab­lished compa­nies’ radars. That’s why there isn’t an inno­va­tion group looking at milk, as he explains. Instead, they focu­sed on insects as food­s­tuffs before they were available from major retail­ers. ‘We saw a commu­nity crop­ping up around insects and noti­ced that this topic was a hotbed of acti­vity.’ Insects haven’t quite made it onto our menus yet, but the topic has moved on. One poten­tial use for insects is as food in sustainable fishe­ries. The inno­va­tion groups also look at fungal systems. ‘We’re all fami­liar with white button mush­rooms. But what’s the next thing?’, asks Lucas Grob. Swiss Food Research’s approach always stri­ves to include the entire value chain in its explo­ra­tion of topics – ranging from where food grows, through to how the body absorbs it. As the organisation’s maxim states, the food system can only be trans­for­med if there’s a solu­tion for every single step along the chain. The Swiss Food Ecosys­tems inno­va­tion boos­ter has been deploy­ing this exact approach since 2021 in the hope of iden­ti­fy­ing solu­ti­ons. Its work focu­ses on rede­sig­ning the agri­cul­tu­ral and food systems. Supported by Inno­su­isse, it is mana­ged by Swiss Food Rese­arch and the Food & Nutri­tion clus­ter. Innosuisse’s entire inno­va­tion boos­ter programme hopes to deve­lop 600 inno­va­tive ideas and 100 follow-on projects. All told, it has a budget of 21.3 million francs at its dispo­sal until 2024. ‘For a trans­for­ma­tion to succeed, we need to tackle both the start and end of the value chain,’ explains Lucas Grob. ‘It’s no good deve­lo­ping the perfect cell-based meat if consu­mers aren’t inte­res­ted in it.’ Simi­larly, it’s important that primary produc­tion is profi­ta­ble and can gene­rate added value. Price always plays a role, too, and sustaina­bi­lity is also rele­vant – but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. ‘Lots of stan­da­lone sustaina­bi­lity projects miss the mark. Recy­cling one kind of mate­rial or waste product doesn’t align with today’s econo­mic reali­ties.’ In short, the system needs to undergo holi­stic chan­ges if the trans­for­ma­tion is to be a success. The various compa­nies along the value chain need to work colla­bo­ra­tively, opti­mi­sing flows and cycles jointly. To do so, they need well-func­tio­ning feed­back mecha­nisms and dialo­gue. Swiss Food Rese­arch belie­ves in co-crea­tion, and the asso­cia­tion is a certi­fied Living Lab. ‘These commu­ni­ties enable us to test out ideas at an early stage. We see trends on the hori­zon and can colla­bo­ra­tively vali­date them,’ says Lucas Grob. Sitting in a silent room to deve­lop a product and presen­ting the finis­hed article two years later is not a recipe for success, in his book: nobody would have been looking forward to seeing the outcome.

‘We saw a commu­nity crop­ping up around insects’

Lucas Grob, CEO Swiss Food Research

Know­ledge isn’t enough

Slow Food Switz­er­land also makes substan­tial use of its network. As part of the inter­na­tio­nal Slow Food move­ment, the asso­cia­tion sees its pool of know­ledge as the resource that paves the way for change. ‘In turn, we can contri­bute a fasci­na­ting perspec­tive on trans­forming our food system,’ says Co-Presi­dent Toya Bezzola.

‘It’s not just about effi­ci­ency and tech­no­logy: we need a holi­stic approach,’ she says. In its ‘Presi­dia’ projects, for instance, Slow Food focu­ses on local, artis­a­nal foods. ‘It’s important to preserve this know­ledge and bring it to the fore,’ she adds. This know­ledge might relate to a tradi­tio­nal product or it can be a way to disco­ver old skills and learn new ones. ‘It doesn’t mean that we’re not looking towards the future,’ says Toya Bezzola. Tradi­tion and inno­va­tion can exist side by side – as illus­tra­ted by plant-based cuisine. Histo­ric plant varie­ties, such as broad beans, can be a healthy, non-indus­trial source of protein. As a result, this know­ledge shouldn’t just remain in purely theo­re­ti­cal form: it should be brought to life, under­pin­ning new solu­ti­ons in conjunc­tion with the organisation’s inter­na­tio­nal network that covers 160 countries.

Slow Food is working hard to ensure every commu­nity is heard. This applies espe­ci­ally to those who have a less powerful voice in our society, parti­cu­larly youn­ger people or Indi­ge­nous commu­ni­ties. They’re home to lots of poten­tial: ‘People unde­re­sti­mate how many active members are invol­ved in Slow Food,’ says Laura Rod, who shares the presi­dency of Slow Food Switz­er­land with Toya Bezzola.

‘We can support them to act as multi­pli­ers within their networks.’ The network has a lot of expe­ri­ence and know­ledge to share about deal­ing with food, growing and proces­sing it and cooking it. This also includes insights into things that didn’t go so well: that way, not ever­yone needs to make the same mista­kes. ‘If you try things out and fail, the entire network can learn from this,’ she says.

Shaming people isn’t a solution

Know­ledge lays the foun­da­ti­ons for a trans­for­ma­tion towards a sustainable food system. Nowa­days, people can be bombarded with infor­ma­tion, marke­ting, pretty pictures of food. But the lovely picture doesn’t neces­s­a­rily corre­spond to the food’s ingre­di­ents. Slow Food wants to leave consu­mers better equip­ped to pursue a respon­si­ble approach. The asso­cia­tion is keen to educate people; this is one of Slow Food’s pillars. ‘Our markets bring plea­sure to people,’ says Laura Rod. ‘This enables know­ledge to be shared in a sustainable way.’ She sees ‘shaming’, often a topic of discus­sion in the present day, as a nega­tive deve­lo­p­ment. Pejo­ra­tive state­ments like, ‘It was wrong of you to buy a latte in a plas­tic cup,’ are, in Laura Rod’s opinion, not the right way to handle the situa­tion. No matter your indi­vi­dual prefe­ren­ces, she thinks that ever­yone can make a diffe­rence. ‘And toge­ther, we can move moun­ta­ins,’ she says.

Fotos: chandlervid85/; Desi­gned by reli­neo / Freepik; Desi­gned by Yeven_Popov / Freepik; zVg

‘If we want to create a new food culture, we need to reach people through dialogue.’

Laura Rod, Co-Presi­dent Slow Food Switzerland

Food as our cultu­ral heritage

WeIf you want to spark change, you need society to get invol­ved – just as Slow Food does by preser­ving culinary culture. Slow Food serves as a byword for food, enjoy­ment, the social expe­ri­ence: an approach that sets the scene for change. ‘If we want to create a new food culture, we need to reach people through dialo­gue,’ says Laura Rod. Sharing infor­ma­tion in theo­re­ti­cal form isn’t enough to make the shift towards sustainable food systems a success. Toya Bezzola firmly belie­ves that, on its own, know­ledge can’t spark change. As a result, Slow Food teams have spent years looking at how to turn this know­ledge into action. Toya Bezzola asks: ‘How can we create oppor­tu­ni­ties, simply try things out and kick-start the process that leads us towards alter­na­ti­ves to the status quo?’ There are many ways to achieve sustainable food systems. ‘We can’t all eat unli­mi­ted amounts of meat and believe that we’ll find tech­no­lo­gi­cal solu­ti­ons to make this sustainable,’ says Nadina Müller. At the same time, we don’t all need to go vegan. Certain rest­ric­tions will be unavo­ida­ble. A willing­ness to adapt quickly enough will also be requi­red. Pairing this with tech­no­lo­gi­cal inno­va­tions is, in her eyes, a sure-fire way to create sustainable food systems. Pack­a­ging is crucial – and not just in terms of waste conside­ra­ti­ons. If consu­mers don’t have suffi­ci­ent know­ledge, they can end up being led astray. To what extent does pack­a­ging gene­rate addi­tio­nal waste, and to what extent does it extend a product’s shelf life, preven­ting it from going off before it’s eaten? Food waste needs to be offset against pack­a­ging waste.

Selçuk Yildi­rim, who heads up the rese­arch group for Food Pack­a­ging at ZHAW, grapp­les with these issues. He wants to use the group’s findings to support the over­ar­ching concept of sustainable food. ‘As scien­tists, we’re used to publi­shing the findings of our rese­arch in acade­mic papers,’ he says, addres­sing a chall­enge they now want to tackle with the Centre of Excellence. 

This isn’t just a place to gene­rate know­ledge: the know­ledge is to be shared with entire indus­tries to boost its impact and promote sustainable deve­lo­p­ment in a broa­der sense. The ques­tion of how they can better reach consu­mers is also on the table. In addi­tion to a lack of know­ledge, misin­for­ma­tion is also on the rise. Green­wa­shing is an issue in the field of pack­a­ging, too. ‘Consu­mers believe that pack­a­ging which looks like paper is gree­ner – even if it’s made from plas­tic,’ he explains. ‘Consu­mers need support.’ The Menu-Sustaina­bi­lity Index, which ZHAW deve­lo­ped for rating menus, is an exam­ple of this support. ‘Of course, you’ve always got to balance the various inte­rests at hand,’ says Nadina Müller. Consu­mers want ratings to be as simple as possi­ble – but these ratings also need to accu­ra­tely reflect a complex situa­tion. The Menu-Sustaina­bi­lity Index is a nuan­ced approach to this comple­xity. This lays the perfect ground­work for subse­quently deve­lo­ping targe­ted commu­ni­ca­tion that incor­po­ra­tes a menu’s various aspects into the rating, parti­cu­larly its envi­ron­men­tal and health-rela­ted elements.

Overe­sti­mat­ing the impact

These ratings help to correct miscon­cep­ti­ons. People can deve­lop these miscon­cep­ti­ons around new products in parti­cu­lar, because they fit a trend. The sustainable impact of meat substi­tu­tes can be easily overe­sti­ma­ted. ‘These products aren’t as sustainable as many people think,’ says Nadina Müller. ‘So much scrap mate­rial is gene­ra­ted during their manu­fac­ture.’ For exam­ple, if you use peas to create meat substi­tu­tes, the raw mate­rial conta­ins around 30 per cent protein. This is what manu­fac­tu­r­ers want, and they need it to be as pure as possi­ble. Some of the dietary fibres can be used, too. Howe­ver, 50 to 60 per cent of the raw mate­rial doesn’t make its way into the meat substi­tute. ‘If ever­yone were to eat meat substi­tu­tes, there’d be a huge amount of starch left over,’ says Nadina Müller. This makes them rather less sustainable. People are looking for ways to use these kinds of waste products – or by-products – from the food indus­try. Nadina Müller and Selçuk Yildi­rim are working on a project backed by the Avina Foun­da­tion that explo­res how by-products can be used to create new food­s­tuffs or pack­a­ging. Switz­er­land is home to an enorm­ous amount of poten­tial. ‘Studies have shown that huge volu­mes of by-products are crea­ted within Switz­er­land,’ says Selçuk Yildi­rim. ‘We’ve talked to 15 part­ners in the indus­try to explore how we can bring these by-products to market.’ Finan­cial support from the Avina Foun­da­tion has enab­led these ideas to be acce­le­ra­ted. Recei­ving funding from a foun­da­tion has a major perk, too, as Selçuk Yildi­rim explains: ‘Being funded by a foun­da­tion enables us to take the know­ledge we gain and share it with every parti­ci­pant in the market. If we were working with a part­ner from the indus­try, they’d claim this know­ledge for them­sel­ves.’ The rese­ar­chers believe they’re in a posi­tion of great privi­lege. ‘We receive a wonderful amount of support,’ says Nadina Müller. ‘There are all kinds of opti­ons provi­ded by the Fede­ral Govern­ment, from Inno­su­isse to the Swiss Natio­nal Science Foun­da­tion (SNSF).’ Nume­rous foun­da­ti­ons support their work, as do donors from the food industry.

A topic that affects us all

In addi­tion to all these diffe­rent aspects rela­ting to our food systems, Selçuk Yildi­rim notes that eating is prima­rily a cultu­ral act and a source of plea­sure: ‘And some­ti­mes food simply tastes so good that we eat too much of it.’ Toya Bezzola belie­ves that the cultu­ral aspect also reflects our connec­tion to the natu­ral world – some­thing we’ve lost. ‘We need to free oursel­ves from the narra­tive of effi­ci­ent food,’ she believes.

And Lucas Grob’s key message is: ‘Eating is so intert­wi­ned with our lives. If we don’t all get to grips with this issue, it will be extre­mely diffi­cult to make head­way in terms of sustainable food and farming.’

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